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The history of the history of learning disability

Simon Jarrett


In 1904 Dr Martin Barr, president of the American Association for the Study of Feeblemindedness, published a book called Mental defectives: their history, treatment and training. This was the first serious attempt to write a history of what we call today ‘learning disability’. In it he referred to ‘the idiot’ as a form of human who ‘sees nothing, feels nothing, hears nothing, does nothing and knows nothing,’ In fact, Barr was not writing a history of people with learning disabilities at all – he did not believe that such ‘idiots’ had a history to write about. He was writing a history of the doctors and medical institutions that had laid claim to treat such people since the nineteenth century, and in doing so he was supporting that medical claim.

Since Barr’s work there have been a growing number of attempts to write the history of people with learning disabilities. As this has happened the name used to categorise the group has changed with bewildering rapidity. There have been histories of the mentally deficient, the mentally retarded, the mentally handicapped, people with learning disabilities, people with learning difficulties, the intellectually disabled and many more.

This talk explores the history of these histories, and asks some questions about them. Are they ‘hidden’ histories? Why has the naming changed so often, and so regularly? What are historians doing when they apply a name to a group of people? What is the link between these names, and the names that are used by policy makers, government and service providers? What does all of this tell us about the power and status (or lack of it) of the people we call people with learning disabilities today?

Finally the talk discusses whether any of this matters. At a time when austerity and deep cuts to services pose a threat to the lifestyles and futures of people with learning disabilities and their families, do we really want to spend valuable time talking about history? Can history help us to understand our own time, and even the future, or is it irrelevant?

View the PowerPoint presentation (PPT)

Speaker biography

Simon Jarrett is a Wellcome Trust doctoral researcher at Birkbeck, University of London. His work explores the idea of ‘idiocy’ in the eighteenth century, before the age of the institution, and examines how ‘idiots’ who once lived in their communities became seen as people who should live in asylums.

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About the Group

If you woud like to get in touch with the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group, please contact:

Liz Tilley 
Chair of the Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Research Group
School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes

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